There has never been a question of effort with the St. Croix Central girls’ basketball team this season.

That effort was rewarded when the Panthers celebrated their Senior Night on Thursday in their regular season finale. Central’s girls took the lead at the start and never gave it up, defeating Ellsworth, 56-48. The win is the second of the season for Central, while the loss leaves Ellsworth in fifth place in the final Middle Border Conference standings at 5-9, with an 8-14 overall record.

As part of the Senior Night celebration, Central started all four of its seniors: Parker Chladek, Angelica Olson, Kolbi Juen and Morgan Siler. The seniors gave Central the start it needed, with Central building up a quick 12-2 advantage.

Central’s game plan was based around putting a great deal of defensive energy toward stopping Ellsworth’s two main scoring threats, Autumn Earney and Kaitlyn Nugent. Central had Siler shadowing Nugent and she couldn’t have done a better job, keeping her scoreless in the game. Central wasn’t as successful against Earney. She scored 27 points, including reaching the 1,000-point milestone for her career.

Central coach Riley Walz said his team did an excellent job of playing help defense to make sure Ellsworth’s top scorers didn’t do more damage.

Ellsworth didn’t let Central pull away. The margin was down to three points just before halftime, but Central’s Sydney Carlson banked in a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to make Central’s lead 27-21.

Central has led or been close at halftime in several games over the past month. Walz said the team talked at halftime about playing smart and being patient. That’s just what the team did, hitting the first hoop of the second half and maintaining a steady lead. The closest Ellsworth came to the lead in the second half was four points.

Central also succeeded by being active on offense. That resulted in Central shooting 35 free throws in the game, making 21 of them.

Siler again led Central’s offense, matching her career high with 23 points. Juen did another strong job in the paint, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Delaney Lloyd and Maddie Anderson each finished with six points and Lloyd added nine rebounds. Central was without sophomore post Katie Gostovich, who was ill, and Lloyd and Anderson were among the girls who stepped in to fill her minutes.

Through the difficulties of the season, Central’s girls have continued to stay positive and kept the team improving. Walz said he had a hunch the girls would perform well Thursday after watching the previous night’s practice.

“Wednesday was probably our best overall practice of the season,” Walz said.

Central begins the WIAA Division 3 regional playoffs on Tuesday, Feb. 25, by playing at Hayward. Central is the tenth seed in the region and Hayward is seeded seventh. Walz said he believes Central will be competitive in this game. Hayward is 1-6 in its last seven games, including a 39-38 loss to Spooner, which drew the 11th seed in the region and is 2-18 overall.